The New York–based dance artist John Jasperse has produced fourteen evening-length works and is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including a Bessie in 2001. His latest piece, Canyon, has its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, November 16–19.
I’VE HAD SUCH an ambivalent relationship to dance. There’s a deep passion, but also a lot of reservation and suspicion. And that conflict has been embedded in my work for twenty years.
With Canyon I had this fantasy that there wouldn’t be any language—or even pictures—that would precede your experience in the theater. When you put out photography from your shows, there’s this bizarre, inorganic way in which people experience the work waiting for the moment of the photograph to occur. It’s a constructed way of viewing that relates to their experience of marketing. I even considered doing a press release that had no words. Maybe just have some link to a video that wasn’t a document of the performance but was more like a vestibule to an experience that you would have with the dance.
I’ve read so many reviews where I feel like the writer just spat back the press release. It’s like they want to make sure that the language they use corresponds to the language that I use. We think about meaning as this fixed place, but “understanding” or “meaning” exists in this triangular relationship among content, form, and perception. Form is how the content—sonic, physiological, visual—is organized in time and space. And perception is what the audience member brings to it. It’s a dynamic triangle, and every person who comes to the piece is going to create a different meaning. So the idea that there’s this one location that’s tethered to language, that’s fixed and can’t be moved, really gets in the way.
Dance is an intrinsically abstract form, even when it’s grounded in concepts that you can speak about in language. Look at the form of story ballet. There’s the story of Sleeping Beauty, but that’s not what the dancing is. In the twentieth century there was a stripping away of relationships between dance and story, and narrative was often replaced by “concept.” But the concept is still principally linguistic, so people think, “If I understand the idea then I’ll ‘get’ the work.” But while those concepts inform and ground your experience, they aren’t the experience proper.
I’m the first to admit that the whole construction of “I’m going to go to a theater and sit in a chair in a dark room and look at people do fancy things that I know are hard” is a problematic performance paradigm. There’s an entire generation of people who have aggressively rejected that. Some of this has involved a stylistic judgment of anything that smacks of skill. Like the trained body is something that we need to escape from.
I became much more known in a career sense in the mid-1990s, which is around the time that Jérôme Bel made Jérôme Bel, and Xavier LeRoy began to make his work, which often examined modes of deskilling. Even during this time, I continued to make dance that engages with skilled bodies. It’s a body that can also fall apart, where moments of noncoordination are rendered equal to moments of skill, but I’ve never been ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And that’s really placed me in a different position vis-à-vis most of my peers. I’m neither in New York nor in Europe. I feel like a raft in the middle of the Atlantic.
I don’t go to Europe nearly as much as I used to. I’ve certainly entertained trying to move. Early on, Bill Forsythe was like, “What are you still doing around the United States?” But this is where I’m from. I love the irreverence of America. We’re a really problematic culture, but I want to participate in that problem. I don’t want to abandon it to the Tea Party.